Tips from the PR Pros: COVID-19 Crisis Communications

PR professionals often stand on the frontlines of public communication in times of crisis, strategizing and delivering statements and responses to the public and media. But not everyone has the luxury of a PR team or consultant, and delivering the right message amidst the global confusion and chaos can be a fine line to toe.

As the pervasive effects of the COVID-19 virus continue to unfold and impact every sector of the economy, here are important tips to consider when managing crisis communications on any platform.

  1. Divide and Conquer

News regarding the virus is continuous, dynamic and unpredictable, all of which underscores the importance of teamwork. Assembling a crisis team with designated roles is helpful for distributing the weight of the situation and taking a comprehensive, balanced approach.

  • Identify a crisis “spokesperson,” aka whoever on your leadership team is most adept at public speaking and interviews, while a team member with strong writing skills can work to craft the messages themselves, and so on.
  • Maintain communication with your team so all are abreast of the latest updates and breaking news, and brainstorm potential scenarios and responses you can give. For situations like the one currently underway, news-notification tools like Google Alerts can save time and make breaking news more accessible.
  • The last thing any staff needs is internal chaos, so institute an internal edit and review system so nothing goes out the door unless everyone is on board.
  1. The Art of the Statement
  • When drafting a press statement, stick to the “less is more” approach. The more information you offer, the more scrutiny and confusion you could yield. Draft three key messages for any given situation, as any more could be excessive.
  • Statements should be drafted swiftly and reactively, not proactively, and stick to the facts. Health is a complicated topic, so always keep legal vulnerabilities in mind as well.
    • For example, the statement “We are upping our sanitary procedures” might seem harmless at first glance, but it could get messy in terms of how the public responds, i.e., “Well why weren’t your sanitary procedures already adequate?”
  • Remember your audience and be reassuring, if possible. Statements should only report the facts and do not need to incite further panic—but don’t overcompensate.
    • Avoid phrases of resolution like “a pandemic like this will never happen again,” as you could be promising too much in terms of what the actual reality could be.
  1. Know Your Rights (And the Media’s Rights)
  • Remember that no one is required to answer every question posed by media, and you can always say no to an interview. Global health is a topic best left to the experts.
    • Defer to relevant authorities or advice from governing bodies, like the CDC, when possible. 
  • Avoid cold calls from media, and remember that you can always request an interview at a later date in a preferred setting. Also, try to stick to written statements in lieu of spoken ones.
  • The media has the right to broadcast or stay on public property, but this does not include areas like the parking lot or sidewalk.
  • Remember that media outlets have long, collective memories—treat them with respect and understand they are just trying to do their job to inform the public.

As a representative of any company or individual, dealing with the media and public in times of crisis is extremely tricky, but it is critical. Remembering to stick to the facts, prioritize brevity and consolidate reliable sources can be helpful. In the end, this situation is beyond the control of most, so always approach communications initiatives with patience and level-headedness.

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